On being asked about the inception of Swayong, Swatil Mahmud says, "During my undergrad in Malaysia, my friends and I happened to share stories of sexual abuse and discrimination we personally encountered. Despite our differences in nationality, culture, and the environment we were brought up in, to my surprise, we had very similar stories to tell." This made her realise how gender-based violence and other forms of discrimination are a global issue and a common experience shared by people across borders.
After she came back to Bangladesh, Swatil Mahmud wanted to create a safe space for everyone to voice stories of injustices they have faced. "The initial goal was to listen to and document people's stories. As more stories were documented, we realised that the number of people who felt the need for a platform where they are heard without feeling the burden of judgement weighing them down is quite large." Since then, the organisation has operated with the vision of producing content that encourages people to interact meaningfully with sensitive topics, breaking down inhibitions about issues regarded as taboo, and creating an inclusive space for everyone to undo the damages done by the patriarchy.
Core values: The critical element Swayong hopes to integrate into our cultural milieux is equality -- both in interpersonal and community spheres. The four core values of this organisation interact in synchrony to achieve this effect. Firstly, Swayong aims to foster the power of the collective, by striving to ensure that women and gender-diverse groups have the systemic support to achieve equality. Secondly, the organisation believes in amplifying voices, by highlighting stories of under-represented communities to enhance sustainable change. Thirdly, Swayong seeks meaningful changes, by countering regressive social norms and stereotypes with empathy and action. Lastly, empowering individuals, by equipping them with the information, solidarity, and power to help them raise their voices is another core value the organisation emphasises on.
Theory of change and tools: "When we put a face to a story of injustice, as opposed to a statistic, we can generate more awareness in society," says Swatil Mahmud. When we talk about injustices faced by a specific person, we push the notion that the problem is not just an issue existing in a vacuum but an issue that deteriorates the quality of life of a real individual. "Moving on from a real person's story (for example, a story of a girl child facing discrimination) is more difficult than moving on from a statistic (for example, the proportion of girl children facing abuse), " she adds. The former induces more empathy in the audience probing them to think of deep-rooted social issues and sustainable means of addressing them.
With this in mind, Swayong aims to reinforce positive changes in mentality that can be translated into behavioural change, and in turn, societal change favourable for all communities. The organisation does so through campaigns, themed events, and strategic use of communication approaches to promote changes in knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and practices. Swayong keeps its content simple and easy for everyone to understand. It makes sure that its content helps the audience identify and unlearn harmful ideas while recognising their importance. Publishing in both English and Bangla helps Swayong engage more readers and increase awareness.
Growth through campaigns: To combat gender and social issues, Swayong has launched a total of twenty-one campaigns since its inception, some in person and some online. Some noteworthy campaigns advocating for the safety and autonomy of women, the LGBTQIA+ community, and other minority groups include 'Rage Against Rape', 'Transforming mindsets', 'Female Frontline Warriors' and 'Your Body, Your Choice'. The organisation has also hosted nine live talk shows to educate people and question regressive norms.
Earlier in 2022, Swayong produced and screened its first documentary film ‘Jonglaphool’ portraying how women from diverse backgrounds have been surviving in the face of numerous adversities, analogous to wildflowers. The film touches a chord by showcasing the status quo of how women encounter barriers in major aspects of their lives, prompting the audience to do their part to challenge the said status quo.
Through these campaigns, Swayong has effectively built a community of like-minded people and expanded the safe space. A key factor driving this growth is the dedication of the volunteers working for the organisation, who go by the name 'Swayong Warriors'. Fuelled by the drive to bring positive changes, volunteers of all ages came together to initiate steps toward a more equitable society. Swayong invests in the capacity and skill-building of the volunteers via training, mentorship, and providing continuous opportunities.
Barriers and bottlenecks: Despite its astounding growth, Swayong has had to circumvent variegated sets of barriers throughout its journey. Their content is subjected to negative remarks and whataboutism. For instance, a proportion of Swayong's audience pushes baseless narratives about how trying to ensure the rights of minority groups is unimportant when there are issues such as hunger and poverty. Readers who do not believe in equality for everyone never fail to leave conservative remarks online. "I have no idea where they learn so much intolerance from," says Swatil Mahmud. "During the Rage Against Rape protests, dissatisfied people picked certain feminists' social media accounts and reported them," she added.
Another barrier faced by Swayong is that when it comes to influential companies arranging events in association with feminist organisations, male-led organisations are prioritised. Again, several donors tend to keep collaborating with organisations they know from before, not giving newer organisations such as Swayong a chance to showcase their portfolio.
The way forward: The volunteers working for Swayong brainstorm novel ideas on how to tackle these above-mentioned challenges and materialise them in creative and effective ways. Moving forward, the organisation aims to keep standing against detrimental social norms and stereotypes by helping relevant stakeholders raise their voices. Swayong wants to keep transforming mindsets through each story at a time, evoking awareness in society and inculcating the desire to strive toward equality. In fact, Mitul Mahmud proclaims that she dreams of a world where Swayong would no longer be needed given that all forms of injustices would have been already eliminated from society.
The writer is a final year BBA student at IBA, Dhaka University.